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Earthquake damage estimates hit $48.5 million, Salt Lake County officials say

Most costly damages likely in Granite School District

SHARE Earthquake damage estimates hit $48.5 million, Salt Lake County officials say
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Jim Russell, director of the state’s Division of Facilities Construction and Management, looks at damage to the Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 9, 2020. The damage was caused by a 5.7 magnitude earthquake centered in Magna on March 18.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Officials are still tallying, but the path of destruction left behind by last month’s 5.7 magnitude earthquake is racking up tens of millions of dollars in damage.

So far in Salt Lake County, inspectors have found the quake has damaged 107 government buildings — including dozens of schools — with early estimated costs hitting the $48.5 million mark, according to Clint Mecham, Salt Lake County Emergency Management division chief.

That’s not a final total — and it doesn’t even include homes and businesses.

In Salt Lake County, the quake damaged at least 570 privately owned buildings with costs currently tallied at $1.9 million — but Mecham said that figure is likely to climb as claims are processed.

“That number will increase,” Mecham said while briefing the Salt Lake County Council this week on the latest estimates.

Asked about those estimates, Mecham told the Deseret News the Utah Division of Risk Management, which acts as the insurance agency for government buildings, is still processing claims for public buildings, and he didn’t have more details of which buildings sustained the most costly damage. He said reports are due to be finalized by April 22.

“It’s fortunate for us it was a moderate quake and not the big, severe 7.0-plus quake we’ve always been talking about,” Mecham said. “But even still, the damage is expensive.”

But it came at a challenging time for Utah, as the world remains captive to the global coronavirus pandemic that is hitting the economy with record-breaking unemployment numbers.

“It was a double-whammy for sure,” Mecham said.

Currently, state risk management officials are processing insurance claims on at least 52 government-owned buildings, including damage sustained at the historic Rio Grande Depot in Salt Lake City, at the Utah State Fairpark, the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse, and more, including 27 schools in Granite School District.

Brian Nelson, director of the Utah Division of Risk Management, said it’s “still too early to report with precision the total scope of damage” from the quake as adjusters and engineering firms continue to assess damage, and as more claims come in for weeks and months to come. However, Nelson said the preliminary estimate of total losses ranges from $24 million to $40 million for those claims.

Nelson said state officials expect the claims to be covered by the state’s insurance, which includes quake insurance with limits of $525 million, with a $1 million deductible, which he said will likely be covered by an additional policy.

Throughout Salt Lake County, Mecham said damage ranges from cracks in the wall to foundational damage, and some structural damage — with inspections completed at a wide range of public buildings, including fire stations, police stations, city halls and schools.

And it’s looking like Granite School District will likely be the hardest hit with the costliest repairs.

“The most expensive damage is in the school districts,” said Marilee Richins, deputy director of the Utah Department of Administrative Services, though she said final figures are forthcoming as the Utah Division of Risk Management finalizes its reports.

The Utah Division of Risk Management is still assessing Cyprus High School, 8623 W. 3000 South, in Magna, and West Lake STEM Junior High, 3450 W. 3400 South, in West Valley City, including questioning whether the junior high needs to be rebuilt, according to Richins.

School district officials estimate Cyprus High School sustained about $1 million worth of damage, according to Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley. There was also “minor cosmetic damage” at more than 20 other school district buildings, he said.

Cyprus High School is scheduled for replacement in four years. The new school will be built near 8400 W. 4000 South and should be ready to occupy in August 2024, according to the school district’s construction schedule.

The most significant damage to Cyprus High School was to an exterior wall near the school’s swimming pool and damage to the school library. Plans include shoring up the exterior wall in the pool area and then rebuilding the wall “so the school can continue to be used for the next four years until the new school opens,” Horsley recently told the Deseret News.

Damage to the library appears significant, but “we feel comfortable that with the current structure, we’re going to be able to make the necessary repairs, that will be accessible to students by this fall. Both areas should be accessible,” Horsley said.

For West Lake STEM Junior High, it’s a different story. Horsley expects it will likely make up a “significant portion” of the county’s $48.5 million damage estimate of public buildings. But Horsley didn’t offer a cost estimate for West Lake STEM Junior High, saying that’s still being evaluated by structural engineers and state officials.

“This is literally a situation where the state is our insurance agent and will evaluate a lot of data to decide how to proceed,” Horsley said.

In the meantime, the school district is “proceeding with plans to relocate the students for up to two years,” Horsley said.

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A heat map of damage reports, compiled by the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District from over 400 reports gathered from citizens online, shows a bulk of the quake’s destruction is concentrated in Magna, where scientists pinpointed the quake’s epicenter.

“It’s white hot,” said Greg Schulz, Magna’s administrator.

Of those reports, about 250 reports have come from Magna homeowners, with many reporting cracked walls and crumbling brick chimneys, according to Maridene Alexander, spokeswoman for the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District.

Schulz said most of Magna’s damage has been concentrated along Main Street, with several historic buildings including Colosimo’s sausage factory and a building attached to the Empress Theatre. While those buildings were structurally damaged, Schulz said none are condemned.

“No buildings are planned to be razed at this point,” Schulz said.

But Schulz said it’s a trying time for Magna residents and businesses, who are already struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of economic problems brought on by the pandemic, Schulz said scores of homeowners are worried about costly home repairs.

“Right now, with the economy the way it is, there is really no easy, simple answer to any of this,” Schulz said. “I don’t know how you could have picked a worse scenario to create.”

It will likely take months to assess the full extent of financial damage the quake has left behind. Home and business owners will have to sort through claims with their insurance agencies. And home inspections are taking even longer amid COVID-19 social distancing rules and shutdowns, Schulz said.

“Because of the restrictions that we’re seeing with COVID-19, that’s really the wrench in the system right now that makes it harder for them to get quotes to get work done,” he said.

It’s also not common for Utahns to have earthquake insurance, and many Magna residents don’t, Schulz said.

As for any federal emergency assistance dollars, Utahns won’t know whether they could be eligible for months — and only after they first work with their own insurance agencies.

“It depends on what qualifies and what doesn’t,” Mecham said, adding that the federal government “doesn’t just walk in with a checkbook and make everybody whole.”

After assessments are due April 22, Mecham said officials will begin “meeting up the food chain to see what kind of assistance will be available.”